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UCU banners at demonstration.

UCU banners at demonstration. Photo: Sean Wallis / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Fighting back against attacks by employers in higher education requires coordinated action across the sector

We have now come to the end of an incredibly stressful academic year in higher education. The last year has revealed a sector that is plagued with workload issues and bosses who have tried to use the cover of the pandemic to ‘restructure’ their workforces by trying to close Departments and sack staff. 

Those of us in the pre-92 universities are facing another fight to defend our pensions. Another suspect valuation of the USS scheme, this time carried out at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 when the markets were at their most jittery, has led to a set of proposals which are detrimental to staff. 

To top it all off, a miserly pay offer is an insult to all of us who have worked to deliver online and ‘blended’ learning in the most difficult of circumstances.

To listen to some vice chancellors you would think the sector was in desperate financial straits. But the university sector is emerging from the pandemic in rude financial health. 

The Office for Students predicted overall sector income to increase from £34,666 million in 2018-19 to £40,730 million in 2023-24. Increased income from course fees and research grants have easily offset any losses sustained from coronavirus. With a growth in student numbers of over 12% predicted by 2024-25, the boom time seems likely to continue.

VCs have not been slow to ensure they get their rewards, whether through huge salaries or a range of other benefits.

Given this, the employer’s miserly 1.5% pay offer is an insult. In 2019, UCU estimated that the value of staff pay had fallen by an astonishing 17% since 2009. In addition, there continue to be embedded pay differentials disadvantaging women and those identified as BAME.

UCU needs to launch a strong campaign over HE pay, job protection and over the defence of USS pensions. Instead there seem to be splits in the leadership over the way forward, whether to “accept” the 2020 valuation as legitimate on a tactical basis in order to put forward alternative proposals. There will now be a Special Higher Education Sector Conference (SHESC) on 9 September but already talk is under way from general secretary Jo Grady that this should be followed by a period of reflection and discussion rather than pushing for action.

Though the delayed SHESC will afford branches more time to organise and colleagues to take a much-deserved break over the summer, alternatively, too much dithering over industrial action will only play into the employer’s hands. Even now, some university senior management teams are talking tough, saying they will not increase salaries until the current higher education joint unions pay claim is settled, a change of practice from previous years. 

Additionally, there are signs that several employers are determined to push ahead with compulsory redundancies for spurious financial reasons. In recent months, hundreds of colleagues at Liverpool, Leicester, Goldsmiths, Sheffield, Hull, Aston and London South Bank universities have been on strike, are striking or are balloting to strike due to the imminent threat of significant job losses, including the closure of entire departments. 

The likelihood of further sector-wide job losses is almost certain in light of Gavin Williamson’s announcement that public funding will be cut for creative art courses from next academic year onwards. And the Tories could yet decide to reduce yearly tuition fees to £7,500 and/or to impose restrictions on the numbers of students that can be recruited onto other degree courses that are considered ‘low value’ based on graduate job outcomes

On top of this, the government has chosen to lift Covid health and safety measures for colleges and universities. Once again, it will more than likely fall to individual branches, employers and colleagues to negotiate around risk assessments, face-to-face teaching, online learning, home working contingencies, ever changing workloads and the future uncertainty of more lockdowns.  

More than ever, a strong united response is required over pay, redundancies, pensions, and a safe return to campus working that can unite staff across the sector. This means preparing, arguing and working for a good national turnout on a ballot for strike action that will allow effective national action involving all our branches.

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